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Ireland recognizes gift from Choctaw Nation during potato famine

Artist honors the Nation with his sculpture

By ADAM KEMP: Contributing Writer

   The nine eagle feathers tower 20 feet into the Irish sky.  Aligned in a circle, the look is imperfect, bends and creases in one feather distinguishing it from its next metallic counterpart. The feathers stand strong, made from steel and bound together with more than 20,000 welds. But they also give off a sense of fragility, a feeling that a strong breeze could topple them at any moment.

   "This monument represents this  time of great instability," sculptor Alex  Pentek explained. "But it also represents this great moment of compassion, strength and unity."

   Built to honor a donation by the  Choctaw Nation to the people of Ireland during the Great Potato Famine, Pentek has spent more than a year sculpting a work he's named "Kindred Spirits."

   Scheduled to be unveiled in May in  Bailic Park in Midleton, a small town of  12,000 not far from Ireland's southern  coast in County Cork, a plaque in the  middle of the structure will detail how  in 1847, the impoverished Choctaw  Nation was able to scrape together $170  to send to Ireland to help feed starving  people. The sum would be close to  $5,000 in today's money.

   But it's not the size of the long-ago  gift that resonates with Irish nationals  today, but the sacrifice required to make it.

   During the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, more than a million people  perished in Ireland when a blight decimated potato crops that served as the primary food source for almost half the population, but primarily the rural poor.

   Irish were either starving or fleeing the country in hopes of finding work and food in neighboring countries.

   The event was a watershed moment for Ireland - shaping the country's agriculture, politics, demographics and culture from that point forward, according to historians.

   During those years, 1847 was considered the worst.

   A local newspaper wrote about how frustration mounted because of a lack of support from the country's own government.

   "The people watch food melting in rottenness off the face of the earth, all the while watching "heavy-laden ships, freighted with the yellow corn their own hands have sown and reaped, spreading all sail for England."

   Joe McCarthy, who today serves as East Cork's municipal district officer, said that's why the Choctaw donation meant so much to people back then.  Just when they thought nobody cared, a group from across the world reached out to lend a helping hand. The county is paying for the sculpture, which a local Irish newspaper reported will cost more than $100,000.

   "These people were still recovering from their own injustice, and they put their hands in their pockets and they helped strangers," McCarthy said. "It's rare to see such generosity. It had to be acknowledged."

   In 1831, the Choctaw Nation, along with members of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole and Chickasaw nations, had been forced to walk hundreds of miles to Oklahoma from their ancestral lands after President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, which ended American Indian claims to land in the southeast U.S.

   Struggling through harsh conditions, 17,000 Choctaws would attempt the perilous journey, which came to be known as the Trail of Tears. They would be met with disease, starvation and exposure during one of the coldest winters on record. More than 6,000 Choctaws died.

   "It was a death march," Pentek said. "As I researched more into this, it had a profound impact on me. These people were basically sent away from their homes to die. It sends a shiver down my spine thinking about it."

   Forced to settle in what is present-day southeastern Oklahoma, the Choctaw Nation, which had occupied large portions of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, adjusted to life in Oklahoma quickly. The people lived a simple life, starting farms and raising families as they recovered from their time on the trail.

   When word reached them about the plight of the Irish, the familiarity of the stories opened wounds that had just started to heal, said Chief Gary Batton, the tribe's current-day leader. Despite their situation, impoverished and homeless, the Choctaw people pooled their money to send to Ireland.Batton said it was the tribe's way of saying, "Your story is our story.""We didn't have any income," Batton said. "This was money pulled from our pockets. We just went through the biggest tragedy that we could endure, and they saw what was happening in Ireland and just felt compelled to help."Now, 168 years later, the selflessness of the Choctaw Nation still is taught in Irish schools with an emphasis on the fact that they gave even when they couldn't afford to do so.

   "To then be able to have that generosity of spirit to see that these people needed help and we'll do whatever we can ... there's a strength in that donation that is so much more than just money," Pentek said. "I wanted to try to get that across."

   This is not the first time the Choctaw Nation has been honored in Ireland. In 1990, Choctaw leaders traveled to County Mayo to take part in a re-enactment of an 1848 protest. The gesture was returned in 1992, when Irish leaders took part in a trek from Oklahoma to Mississippi. Former Irish President Mary Robinson also has been named an honorary Choctaw chief.

   Batton said he's been invited to the late May unveiling. He hopes to attend and take part in another chapter of the Choctaw-Irish story.

   "We should be proud of our history and culture that we have," Batton said. "These are great healing moments. A great moment for us to show our respect back to them as nation to nation. A chance to stand up and say, "A, Chata Sia."

   "Yes, I am Choctaw."

Biskinik _Apr _2015_original _original

 Irish artist Alex Pentek stands beside a part of his "Kindred Spirits" sculpture. Pentek took on the massive, year-long project after researching the plight of the Choctaw people.
This article and others came from the Choctaw Nation Biskinik. To see more history please refer to the following sites.
Reprinted by permission, The Oklahoman, Copyright 2015.
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